The Academy: The First Riddle review
Moving up to high school can be nerve-wracking at the best of times. You have to make friends, get your head around tricky new subjects, try not to get lost in unfamiliar surroundings; it's a lot to deal with. So imagine how you'd feel if your school also happened to be the epicentre of an ancient mystery and you got chased by a bear on the way to your very first class! That's the world Sam steps into in The Academy: The First Riddle by Serbian developers Pine Studio. Here you'll encounter sinister teachers, enigmatic strangers, and near-daily disasters, all while solving an abundance of tricksy brainteasers. The mystery may not be the most intricate, and the challenges can often feel shoehorned in, but this school is otherwise a happy place to hang out for a while if you're an ardent puzzle fan.
Sam thinks his dreams have come true when a letter arrives, inviting him to come to the famed Arbor Academy. At least, I'm choosing to think he's excited; he's the strong, silent type who never lets slip a single fact about his family life, background, hopes or desires. He is whoever you want him to be, at least as long as you want him to be a lanky pre-teen with a mop of dark hair. Regardless, all that now stands between him and a coveted place at the school is the entrance exam. Little does he know that tough test questions are going to be the least of his problems during a year that will begin with a disappearing teacher and be followed up with any manner of unnatural events, all seemingly presided over by a mysterious hooded stranger lurking in the background.
The Academy is, it must be said, a highly unusual seat of learning. Founded by Baron Alistair Holloway over 500 years ago after the tragic death of his wife, it celebrates his talents for both invention and puzzle solving. Where other schools may teach pedestrian subjects such as Physics and Maths, Arbor instead teach Machines and Symbols (otherwise known as cryptography). Indeed, the baron’s inventions were so far ahead of their time that many of them are still being used, with intricate marvels of wood and brass largely taking the place of computerised technology. The result is an odd parallel reality that mixes modern American high school with more than a dash of Hogwarts, where cluttered dorm rooms rub shoulders with arched cloisters, and corridors of shiny lockers adjoin classrooms with rows of old wooden desks.
All of this is presented in lightly textured 3D, with simple, slightly cartoonish graphics that are brightly coloured and lively. The orchestral score similarly defaults to light and gently bouncy, only occasionally turning dark and threatening as the plot requires. There may be something sinister afoot and catastrophes may be practically a daily occurrence, but this is a joyful, sunny world. And not just metaphorically: it's literally sunny all year round, aside from the odd magically induced storm. And that's only partly because Holloway hated winter and did something to the magnetosphere to banish winter for good. (He did a bit too good of a job there, in fact, as he then had to invent a snow-and-ice machine so the school could have an annual Winter Festival.)
Everything takes place in and around the school, which consists of two wings of classrooms and dorm rooms leading off a central garden and fronted by a grand hall of statues and marble balustrades. Outside there are more formal gardens, with a coffee shop, a newsstand and (shudder) a crypt. Aside from the odd lack of a dining hall, it feels remarkably like a real place, with a sensible, practical layout. Everything's arranged over two floors with numerous staircases, balconies and alternate ways to get from place to place, which is charming but initially made finding my way around a little tricky. After a few days, however, I was an old hand, and diamond-shaped markers helpfully point the way to your objectives. Beware taking them too literally, though: they show you a direct line to the next door you need to go through, meaning they wind up in the ceiling or floor if that door's on another floor. I got very confused at one point when my route to bed seemingly ended at a pile of rubble!
In between classes, you get a third-person view of your surroundings, with the option of either WASD with mouselook or point-and-click to move around. Unfortunately, the initial tutorial only gets as far as introducing the movement keys and shift to run, leaving menu and backpack icons at the top of the screen unexplained. Which might sound trivial, but since mouselook is the default control scheme, there isn't even any way to click them. That's a fairly significant omission as, after a little experimentation, the backpack icon (also activated by the tab key) turns out to call up a screen listing your active tasks, showing a map of the school, and giving you access to the assigned texts for your classes, as well as tracking a variety of optional collectables. Later on you’ll acquire a camera that brings up its own unclickable on-screen icon. That's a neat feature, but even after finishing the game I still don't know how to activate it without switching to point-and-click mode.
Everything that happens in Arbor Academy is a puzzle, almost literally. For example, no sooner have you (as Sam) walked into the school than you run into your roommate-to-be Tucker struggling with a broken pencil, triggering a puzzle about reassembling the pieces. Mechanically, each challenge largely follows the same formula, with a question, illustrated by a static image showing the situation, and either a set of multiple-choice answers to click on or markers that you have to drag to the appropriate spots. Get the main question right and you unlock a bonus question on a similar theme. In case you need to mark up the diagram as you work your way towards a solution, there's also a pencil tool that lets you scribble over the picture with your mouse, together with an eraser and a measurement tool.
This may seem pretty restrictive, and I often found myself wanting to drag actual objects around or flip the switches in the diagram rather than just doodle, but the upside is the sheer number of puzzles the developers were able to include (more than 200). I doubt that would have been feasible if each puzzle had required its own unique mechanics. You'll find yourself traversing maps, packing blocks, deciphering timetables, and identifying symbols in photographs, among many other things. The tasks cover a broad range, although all too often (for my taste, at least) they rely on spotting a subtle pattern or the trick in a question's wording rather than deduction or strategy. In addition, many of them are loosely tied into the narrative at best, making it feel like they were fitted into the plot rather than developed for it. At one point, for instance, your friend Maya asks for your help with her article on the rampaging bear, but then the puzzle presents you with a photo of a cityscape and quizzes you about windows. Likewise, the Machines final is...all about dandelions, for some reason.
If you're having trouble with a puzzle, you can always get a hint in return for one of the chocolate bars you find hidden liberally around the school. There's only one hint per puzzle, and they're kept deliberately vague so as not to completely spoil things, but the hints you get do a good job of pointing you in the right direction. And if you happen to become hopelessly stuck, you can simply keep trying answers at random until you hit the right one with no obvious penalty except a lower score for that puzzle. (The scores start out at 10, with a point docked for each incorrect answer.) As a result, it's essentially impossible to reach a complete impasse, and the puzzle scores don't affect the game at all; they're just there for personal satisfaction.
Each day you have classes to attend, ranging from Symbols to Nature, most of which have an assigned reading that the teacher will quiz you on. This generally involves perusing a page of a given subject's textbook before you go in, then answering a couple of straightforward but timed multiple-choice questions about it. (Again, there's no real penalty for failure beyond a caustic comment from the teacher.) After that, there's a puzzle to solve. Overall, it's an interesting way to emulate the actual learning process and push players to read up on the school's backstory.
Alongside classes, of course, there's a mystery to solve, which involves exploring the school and (surprise!) solving more puzzles. Arbor isn’t just having a run of bad luck; all these bizarre events are happening for a reason. Since, as usual, the teachers don’t have a clue, it’s your job both to deal with each crisis and get to the bottom of what’s causing it all. If you're so inclined, there are also a number of side quests available, such as helping out teachers or classmates or taking additional classes (thankfully without the quizzes). The librarian also hides a book somewhere in the school each day containing an additional puzzle, and there's a daily newspaper with a small Sudoku-like brainteaser on the back page. On top of all that, there are hidden objects to find and views to photograph if you want to, and some of the puzzles reward you with strange fragments or snippets of the baron's diary. There's definitely no shortage of things to do, and it took me around 14 hours to tackle most of it. Even if you're feeling less completist and just want to follow the story, there's still a good 8-10 hours of gameplay here.
As you may be starting to gather, The Academy is a puzzle game first, last and almost everything in between, and enjoying it requires some serious suspension of disbelief. For one thing, it plays pretty fast and loose with the concept of time: the story plays out over Sam's first year at Arbor Academy, yet only covers 14 days. He turns up to sit the entrance exam but is sleeping in the dorm that very night, and he has several classes each day that he can somehow take in any order. Then there's the people he meets: virtually from the moment he runs into classmates Dom and Maya, without a word being said, they're fast friends and investigation buddies. None of the teachers bat an eyelid at their strange questions, writing it all off as healthy curiosity, and a guard comes right out and tells Sam that he'll let him into a forbidden area if he'll just get him a cupcake. Whatever today's life-threatening event, whether an earthquake that shakes the school to its foundations or a deadly plague, everyone just dusts themselves off the moment Sam and co. have saved the day and goes back to class. I can only wonder what Sam's parents must make of this casual disregard for health and safety!
Somehow, though, all of this just adds to the jaunty energy that exudes from Arbor's every pore. This isn't real life – you know everything's going to turn out all right, so why sweat the details? It's actually pretty refreshing to run into a game that so rarely takes itself seriously and just wants to feed you riddles to test your problem-solving ability. The story feels very like what you'd get if Enid Blyton had tackled Harry Potter: mystic weirdness mixed with jolly, wholesome camaraderie and banter. Slightly awkward English translations and the absence of voice acting do take the edge off some of the jokes, but the lightheartedness behind them comes through loud and clear.
All of this adds up to a very mixed bag. Given its strong puzzle focus, The Academy: The First Riddle's scattergun approach, emphasising quantity over integration, intuitive mechanics or hands-on interactivity, may be an issue for many. However, as I watched the end credits roll, I still found myself hoping to come back next year for the following chapter in Sam's (and the Academy's) story. That's because, for all its limitations, the sunny graphics, cheery characters and innocent charm brought out the simple joy I felt as a child at tackling a bumper book of puzzles during the summer holiday. If that sounds good to you, too, and you know what you're getting into, Arbor Academy surely still has a desk free.
The Academy can be frustratingly clunky and limited at times, but at its best it’s energetic, likable and packed with puzzling goodness.